During a meeting in the Coverdell Legislative Building in Atlanta between the Cobb Legislative Delegation and Cobb Board of Commissioners, state Sens. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) and state Reps. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), Sharon Cooper (R-east Cobb) and Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) expressed doubts about the $856.48 million, 12.8-mile rail line project, which would only have about one mile of track inside Cobb.
The $856.5 million number is the conservative estimate. The maximum cost is targeted at $1.234 billion, according to the county.
"In speaking for the people of west Cobb, in commuting to Atlanta the biggest problem we have is getting to the Galleria," Tippins said. "Once you get to the Galleria on I-75 you get downtown. The biggest problem is getting there."
Tippins proposed funding projects in the tax that relieved traffic congestion in the county.
"Driving to Atlanta and coming down here as a legislator, if you get south of 285 you're home free," Tippins said. "But it's a nightmare getting to 285, and the bulk of this project is not going to get us any closer to that."
Commission Chairman Tim Lee, who favors the project, said there are other projects in the T-SPLOST project list and in the county SPLOST that will relieve traffic congestion.
As for the rail line, Midtown MARTA Arts Center Station to Cumberland Mall is just the first leg. The long-term goal is to build a second leg from Cumberland to Acworth, and that second leg would benefit west Cobb, Lee said.
"I understand," Tippins said. "But I'm living in the here and now, and that's what I have to drive every day."
Lee said it does no good to build the Cumberland to Acworth leg first. And the 10-year tax doesn't bring in enough money to do both.
"I do not want to go forward with a Cumberland-to-Town Center line and have it never connect to anything," Lee said. "That would be more of an atrocity than it would to have Cumberland-to-the-Arts Center and have some connectivity."
Lee also said he has made it clear to Gov. Nathan Deal's office and to the legislators in the General Assembly that for Lee to sign off on the project, they must commit before Oct. 15 to transit for more than just the 10-year life of the tax.
"The reason this is so important, if we move forward with a 10-year tax and transit is a part of it, and we don't continue that on, it will fail, and it will end up being another ' MARTA system' where it's a rail to nowhere," Lee said.
Tippins asked if one administration could bind another, to which Lee responded no.
Tippins said Lee may get some kind of commitment from the Governor's Office or General Assembly, "but in actuality probably a lot of us are not going to be here in 10 years."
Said Lee: "I know I won't be, sir."
Tippins said that was his point.
"I think to rely on a long term commitment from the state for 30 or 40 years, especially with such economic uncertainties, as a legislator, I think we need to look a whole lot more to the 'here and now' in effective traffic relief," Tippins said.
Then why, Lee asked, was mass transportation a component of the legislation.
State Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) said the Transportation Investment Act simply states that transit should be considered while developing a project list. And as it turns out, 55 percent of the $6.14 billion metro Atlanta project list is transit.
Lee also referenced the "Northwest Atlanta Corridor Alternatives Analysis Study for Cobb Community Transit," funded mostly by a federal grant. The study will examine what kind of mass transportation will work on the I-75 and U.S. 41 corridors. That study should be complete in Feb. 2013, he said.
Why do the study if the election will already be over? Tippins asked.
"We're just now embarking on a study that's not even going to come in until after the vote?" Tippins said. "To me, I don't know why you need the study. You're already committed to it. I don't know why you spend the money for it."
Lee said some of the data from the study will be in before the election, but not all of it.
Ehrhart said he hopes the project list will be revised before it is finalized on Oct. 15.
"What I think we need to do is go clearly to Sen. Tippins' projects in the 'here and now,' " Ehrhart said. "We've got huge infrastructure needs in far west Cobb County, and to ask those people that I represent to support a mile's worth of rail that's finished in 2026 when they have to drive to work every morning would be something that doesn't fix the here and now, and I doubt they'd be very happy with me for supporting something like that."
Cooper said the rail line would clearly benefit one area of the county, the Cumberland Community Improvement District.
"The Galleria and the Arts Centre, and maybe for conventions and so forth, that might be a very viable thing for that line, but as far as a means of increasing other riders on a regular basis ... aren't we closing down the bus lines now because there's not enough riders and so forth?" Cooper asked.
Cooper said if the project is meant to benefit the Cumberland area, why not say so.
"I just wish if we're building it so we can get convention people to come to Cobb County, if they think that's why we can't get big conventions, because they can't get to Cobb County easily, or to help the Arts Centre, I just wish we would call it like I think it is, which is that is the whole purpose of that rail project being included," Cooper said.
Cooper also said people in the South "have a love affair with their cars." They like the independence of coming and going whenever they want. This aspect of Southern culture gives her doubts about the success of a rail line here.
Lee said no one has told him the primary reason for the line is to benefit those groups. The plan it to ultimately connect with Acworth and benefit the entire county, he said.
Setzler reiterated what he told the Journal on Friday, which is the rail line would only benefit five percent of the county while at the same time costing each household in Cobb $4,000.
"Is that a reasonable price tag for something that I would argue 95 percent of people in Cobb can't ride?" Setzler asked.
Lee said any project that's built, whether it's a ballpark or a rail line, isn't going to benefit everyone.
Rogers said he's leaning against the T-SPLOST as well.
"When you have a plan with 55 percent of it is going to rail at a time when we have very few dollars and very great traffic mitigation needs, I think it's going to have a very difficult time passing," Rogers said. "I mean, people are going to look at that and say, 'that's not good for Cobb County.' The rail only comes one mile into Cobb County."
Rogers said rail is good in some instances for economic development.
"We know that rail offers some things that you can't get from just building roads," Rogers said. "But we also know that rail doesn't do a great job in lessening traffic, and at a time when we need traffic to be lessened significantly, I don't know that we would put 55 percent of all our resources into that alone. At this time I'm certainly leaning against it."
Next year, voters in Cobb and other metro Atlanta counties will decide whether to pay an additional 1 percent sales tax for 10 years to finance road and transit projects. The tax is estimated to bring in more than $7 billion region wide over the decade. Last week, the Executive Committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable approved a draft list of $6.14 billion worth of projects the regional tax would pay for. Cobb would get about $1.1 billion worth of projects, with the costliest being $857 million toward the light-rail line from Midtown to Cumberland.